The island territories and democracy

Tomas McIntee
Oct 11, 2018 · 11 min read
Left to right: Flags of Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and U.S. Virgin Islands. (Images from 1,2,3,4,5.)

The United States has five inhabited island territories. These five territories are not states, which means that the residents of those territories do not get to vote for representatives, senators, or presidents. They lack democratic representation — and they should have it.

There are several solutions to this problem: Statehood or independence for each territory; admission of territories as a group in a State of the Territories; or a constitutional amendment granting Congressional representation and electoral votes to territories.

To give an idea of the relative scale of the island territories, here they are together. Some small islands omitted. (Image built from 1,2,3,4.)

Democratic representation is the founding principle of the United States. Remember, in 1776, a group of rebellious colonists, fed up with being governed remotely by the British crown without representation in Parliament, declared their independence. This began the American Revolutionary War. Nonvoting territorial status within the United States was meant to be temporary — not last for 120 years or more.

There are several options to move forward: Independence, statehood, or a constitutional amendment granting democratic representation to territories. The option of statehood comes with several variations, including annexing territories into existing states or constructing a combined State of the Territories.

Statehood

The process of adding new states to the country was an important topic at the time of the Constitutional Convention. The original thirteen states’ governments did not effectively represent the Western territories.

Trying to govern them as subject territories indefinitely would be repeating King George III’s mistake — both on a moral and pragmatic level. However, there were pragmatic reasons for wanting to insure that Americans controlled those western territories. For this reason, they designed a process for admitting new states to the United States on equal footing with the original thirteen states, while delegating authority over the restive West to the federal government.

Connecticut is circled in red. Massachusetts is similarly marked in blue. Both states had non-contiguous territorial claims thanks to intervening states. Image source.

The process is very flexible. Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution does not require very much other than the consent of Congress and the consent of any existing states with a claim to the land in question.

The Constitution does not even require states to be contiguous. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut were already non-contiguous at the time the Constitution was written. The Constitution does not give an explicit minimum size for a new state, either in area or in population, although it implies states should have at least thirty thousand residents. The only limiting factor is that Congress cannot form a new state from an old state without the consent of Congress.

Too small to be states?

First, Puerto Rico has several million inhabitants and has an area larger than Rhode Island or Delaware. Puerto Rico is clearly not too small to be a state. The obstacles to Puerto Rican statehood are political, with economic and cultural roots.

Puerto Rico is comparable to modern-day Connecticut in size and population — not including Connecticut’s former Western Reserve, which is now part of Ohio. (Image from 1,2,3,4.)

The other island territories have populations ranging from from 55,000–163,000. They would be unusually small for a state by modern standards; however, admitting new states with populations in that range is not unprecedented historically or Constitutionally.

There are three numbers given for the size of new states. The Constitution limits the ratio of representatives to people to no more than 1 per 30,000, which implies a lower limit of 30,000. The (superceded) Land Ordinance of 1784 required a minimum population of 20,000; the Northwest Territory Ordinance, dating from 1787, required a minimum population of 60,000, but only applied to the Northwest Territory. The 60,000 limit has had some normative force as a lower limit for what the size of a state should be.

In order to help justify the admission of Illinois, the Illinois border was extended significantly northwards to include the area that is now Chicago. (Image source.)

Historically, there are exceptions to that lower size limit, beginning with the original exception of Delaware. Delaware’s population as of the 1790 census was only 59,094, and thus was less than 60,000 when the Constitution was written and ratified.

At least three states have been admitted with a population less than 60,000. Nevada may have been the smallest; admitted in 1864, its population was only 42,491 as of 1870.

Illinois, one of the states whose admission was supposed to be governed by the Northwest Territory Ordinance, was short of the 60,000 mark. Illinois was admitted in 1818, and most likely had a population of about 45,000 at that time. The Census recorded Illinois’s population as 55,211 in 1820.

The Northern Marianas and American Samoa both have populations of about 55,000. Their admission as states with a population under 60,000 would be neither illegal nor unprecedented, but is potentially troublesome.

A State of the Territories

Puerto Rico is comparable in size and population to Connecticut. The smaller island territories, combined, are roughly the size and population of an average county within in Connecticut. (Sourced from previous and source.)

Combining the smaller island territories into a single temporary state (call it perhaps a State of the Territories) is one possible solution that I keep returning to. This is a solution that can finesse two important problems.

First, the transition from territorial status to statehood involves potentially large changes in governance. Second, the four smaller island territories are very small.

The four of them combined would be the smallest state by either population (with two thirds as many people as Wyoming) or land area (with half the land mass of Rhode Island). This size would give them disproportionate representation, taking them from unrepresented to overrepresented.

Eight senators for 380,000 citizens would be disproportionate, even by the historically disproportionate standards of the Senate. Two senators is little more disproportionate than the existing state of Wyoming with a population of 580,000.

A State of the Territories could finesse these issues by having a very minimal constitution, one that simply fulfills the following functions:

  • It delegates all functions of local governance to the local territorial governments and federal government.

In other words, this State of the Territories would change almost nothing except for giving a real democratic voice to the territories.

Left to right: Flags of Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and U.S. Virgin Islands. (Images from 1,2,3,4.)

The only thing the Constitution says about the governmental structure of the states is that the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government. Each territory has its own republican form of government, and this would be left intact.

It may seem strange to form a state out of geographically separate pieces of land, or to have a state designed to adjust its own boundaries as needed. However, as the history of Connecticut’s Western Reserve demonstrates, states can consist of separate non-contiguous areas, and can even change their boundaries significantly over time.

A Territorial Representation Amendment

One permanent and effective solution to the problem of territories without democratic representation in government is to pass a constitutional amendment that grants each populated territory Congressional representation and the right to vote in presidential elections based on its population.

(Image source.)

Such an amendment should grant all populated territories representation in the House and presidential electors corresponding to those House seats, giving them a say in both the executive and legislative branches. Granting territories seats in the Senate is more problematic. As I mentioned earlier, most of the territories are very small, and adding territorial senators would if anything make it a less democratic institution. A second problem is that the Senate is widely thought to represent states themselves.

It can (and will) be argued that even a single voting House seat represents a disproportionate degree of representation for the smaller territories. I have three responses to that argument:

  • The House can and should be enlarged.

Annexation into an existing state

Another possibility is annexation into an existing state — most logically Hawaii, in the case of the Pacific island territories, or Florida, in the case of the Caribbean territories.

For a territory the size of Puerto Rico, large enough to be a state in its own right, this seems particularly unlikely — but this is another possibility that would satisfy democratic principles. (Image from 1,2,3 .)

This would provide federal representation to the citizens of the island territories by moving them into a state, but would subject them to a distant state government dominated by other interests. Unlike a

Independence

I have left discussion of independence for last on the list of options, because of a simple reason: Very few people living in any of the island territories today seem to want independence. If they did, they would have gained independence, much like the Philippines, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau.

Independence is an acceptable outcome for any of the island territories from a perspective of democratic representation, and one with few complications for mainland Americans. There are more substantial complications for the residents of those islands, however.

Summary

In order for the United States to live up to its founding principles, it is important for us to insure that all Americans, including those living in island territories, have a fair vote in congressional and presidential elections.

Islands approximately but not perfectly to scale. Some smaller islands not pictured. (Image built from 1,2,3,4.)

This could be achieved by granting independence or statehood to the territories; it could also be achieved by passing a constitutional amendment to grant territories some permanent form of representation; finally, it could be achieved by combining those territories into existing states.

One possible statehood solution that may be more palatable than granting statehood to each individual island territory is to combine the smaller island territories into a single State of the Territories for the purpose of federal elections. This would not require a constitutional amendment,

Appendix

My main argument is complete at this point in the article. Feel free to skim to the end and leave a comment. However, I feel the need to include a quick outline about the territories and to highlight some of the complications that are particular to each of the territories, because not all readers will be familiar with each of the territories.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is by far the largest of the island territories (about 9000 km², larger than Rhode Island or Delaware) and supports a population of 3.3 million. It is also the closest territory to the mainland, located in the Caribbean about a thousand miles from Florida. The United States took Puerto Rico in 1898 as part of the Spanish-American War, in which the United States stripped Spain of its Caribbean and Pacific possessions — most notably the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s size makes it a poor fit to combine with other island territories in a State of the Territories. Its size also makes it important to resolve its status; unfortunately, in the case of Puerto Rico, a significant share of the population and one of the major political parties is opposed to both independence and statehood. Any change in Puerto Rico’s status has to overcome not only any reluctance from the mainland, but an entrenched system opposed to any change in political status.

Puerto Rico has been through five status referendum. For 2012, territory votes are from the first question. The PPD had a highly successful boycott in 2017.

In 1934, the Senate passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, a ten-year plan for Philippine independence. Senator Millard Tydings, after review of the Puerto Rican situation, sponsored a similar bill planning out Puerto Rican independence in 1936. At the time, Puerto Rico had a strong nationalist movement.

One of the leading pro-independence politicians, Luis Muñoz Marín of the Liberal Party, launched a campaign to kill the bill. He succeeded, and the Liberal Party expelled him in response to this betrayal of their core principles; however, he went on to found his own political party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which soon took control.

Since that time, the PPD has successfully fought against both independence and statehood in order to maintain the territorial status quo, with tactics ranging from passing gag laws to boycotting referendums.

U.S. Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands are also located in the Caribbean, just east of Puerto Rico. Unlike Puerto Rico and Guam, they were acquired peacefully, purchased from Denmark in 1917. Adding up to about 350 km² and supporting a population of about 100,000, the U.S. Virgin Islands mostly rely on tourism and their role as a tax haven.

In spite of repeated efforts by the mainland government, the residents of the islands have yet to write a territorial constitution. A 1993 referendum on the status of the islands featured very low turnout and a landslide victory in favor of continued territorial status.

Unification with Puerto Rico might seem natural given their geographic proximity, and probably represents the easiest path for the residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands towards full voting rights (following Puerto Rican statehood or independence). However, the U.S. Virgin Islands are culturally distinct from Puerto Rico, and there is a language barrier between the two: The Virgin Islands feature their own distinct dialect of English, while Puerto Ricans generally speak Spanish.

The Marianas

The Mariana archipelago is divided into two separate territories: Guam (the largest and southernmost island, with an area of 540 km² and a population of 160,000) and the smaller Northern Marianas (with a combined area of 470 km² and population of 55,000, with most living on the island of Saipan). After removing Spain’s colonial presence from the Pacific, the United States decided to keep Guam as a strategic naval base and (rather unwisely) allowed the Germans to have the northern islands (along with the Caroline Islands).

The Northern Marianas would change hands again: In 1914, Japan, at the time a British ally, seized the Northern Marianas and Carolines from the Germans. In 1941, the Japanese invaded Guam using troops based in Saipan. In 1944, the United States took Guam and Saipan from the Japanese.

There have been some efforts to try to re-unify Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, and they may be re-unified again in the future. The argument for granting Guam statehood, or at least representation in the House, becomes stronger when applied to a unified Mariana archipelago.

American Samoa

American Samoa is a remote island territory in the Pacific, about 4100 km from Hawaii and 5800 km from Guam. The territory voluntarily became an American protectorate following a civil war in Samoa in 1898.

The larger portion of the Samoan island chain (including the largest islands and over 90% of the land mass of the island chain) was annexed by their German allies at the same time, becoming a German colony. In 1914, German Samoa was taken by New Zealand in 1914, and eventually became an independent nation of West Samoa, now simply called Samoa.

With a population of about 55,000 and an area of 200 km², American Samoa is small by any measure. There is little interest by American Samoans in unifying with Samoa.

Uniquely, American Samoans do not have automatic US citizenship, although they are considered American nationals, with a unique citizenship application process. American Samoa also has its own immigration policies. These two unique features of American Samoa would be necessarily impacted affected by a State of the Territories option, and could prove an obstacle to joining such an entity.

Tomas McIntee

Written by

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade